Isn’t it incredible the amount of attention being paid to the notion of Servant Leadership these days? Some companies act as though this is the greatest leadership fad, the door to renewed productivity and workforce engagement. Others couldn’t care less, even more convinced that the idea that leaders are here to serve their people is a flash in the pan, the latest touchy-feely trend brought about by over sensitive Millenials who resist all aspects of real direction.
In fact, Robert Greenleaf’s modernized version of this leadership style was born out of the Vietnam War era more than 40 years ago. In the decades since, these same ideas were echoed by the likes of Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard, and Peter Block. But even Greenleaf was simply borrowing from ideas practiced by leaders for centuries. And, by historical precedent, many of the early servant leaders were, in fact, military leaders.
Think about it…the very notion of being a leader in the military is one of service to others. Sure, there are still rewards and perquisites awarded to those of higher rank, but at its very foundation, uniformed leaders embody the ideals of servant leadership.
Altruism. It takes but a few minutes of watching the National Geographic documentary Restrepo, an ultra-realistic depiction of year in the life of an infantry platoon deployed to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, to realize the selflessness of military service. The willingness to put serve at the “point at the tip of the spear,” in relative anonymity (save for the publicity that this phenomenal film brought to them) demonstrates the altruistic nature of military service.
Trust. An oft-mentioned aspect of military life is the bond that develops between soldiers, sailors, or Marines serving together under the strain of combat. As a nineteen year-old infantry scout, deploying overseas during the first Gulf War in 1991, I understood all too well that my life was in the hands of my battle buddies, and theirs was in mine. Trust was not a luxury, but a necessary and naturally forming bond that united us in moments of uncertainty.
Empowerment. Back to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, the Battle Company Commander, Captain Daniel Kearney, was charged with the security of a large segment of those strategic highlands. And yet, he clearly allowed the junior officers and non-commissioned officers under him to make tactical decisions that both saved lives and allowed the soldiers to accomplish the missions assigned.
Similarly, onboard naval warships, the Officer of the Deck is not necessarily the most senior office embarked. Instead, through an extensive qualification process, junior officers are certified to be competent to stand accountable for the safety and security of the entire ship. They are empowered to make decisions and command authority over large numbers of often more experienced sailors in high-risk, high-tension situations at sea.
Service. This quality of servant leadership needs almost no explanation when it comes to the military. Whether in times of nationally recognized crisis or examples of conflict engendering significant dichotomy of opinions and support, the American public nearly unanimously hails veterans for the service and sacrifice they willingly embrace for this country. Their work, their lives, and their honor are freely given in service to this country.
Servant leadership may have grown in popularity as a kind of enlightened leadership style in businesses and an enviable theoretical approach in academic circles over the past several decades. But it is not new. Nor is it an approach unique to the military, although the experience of the soldiers of the 173rd Airborne in the Korengal certainly do provide strong and lasting examples of how relevant and beneficial this type of leadership can be.